It’s not the cheater who always becomes the object of our judgment and scorn
Infidelity has always existed but over the past decades, our psychological reactions to it have changed. While scorn and used to be directed primarily toward the person who cheated, today, more often than not, it is also directed toward a second person in the affair triangle—the betrayed spouse, or more specifically, betrayed spouses who decide to stay in the relationship.
Indeed, in recent years, almost every single one of my patients who decided to stay with their partner after an affair has faced the troubling prospect of being judged for staying in the relationship by the very people they rely on most for support and encouragement.
The fact that most people now have the freedom to leave their marriages in the wake of infidelity has created an expectation from those around them that they indeed do so. If they decide to stay, they are likely to hear responses such as, “Don’t you have any self-respect?” “But you’ll never be able to trust him/her ever again!” or “How can you forgive them for what they did?”
This general sentiment against ‘staying’ is often so strong, it can lead to the unfortunate and absurd situation in which the betrayed partner becomes the recipient of greater shame and scorn (for staying in the relationship) than that heaped upon their cheating spouse.
However, by judging a spouse who chooses to stay, we are ignoring some very basic facts about relationships and affairs. First, most couples do, in fact, stay together after an affair. Second, although it takes emotionally challenging and difficult work, many couples are able to mend their relationship and rebuild trust over time. Third, when children are involved, surely it is more prudent to explore the possibility of healing the wounds of the affair than it is to toss away the entire relationship without giving a chance to the mending process.
International bestselling author and relationship expert Esther Perel addressed this issue in her recent and already viral Ted Talk: Rethinking Infidelity: A Talk For Anyone Who Has Ever Loved. Perel eloquently describes the psychological and emotional complexities that lead to infidelity, how affairs have changed over time, and how healing can take place. She also addresses the current climate of judging betrayed partners when they choose to stay.
The new shame is staying when you can leave. For centuries women couldn’t leave but now they can (the thinking goes), so why would anyone stay and ‘take it’?” Perel goes on to explain, “A marriage is not the sum total of this one transgression. Who know how many less visible acts of betrayal have existed in the relationship? What if the affair happened in the context or years of sexual refusal, distance, or disinterest, which can also be construed as a betrayal of marital vows.
I asked Perel what a betrayed spouse should say to friends who judge them for staying.
“Tell your friends or family members they are not the ones who have to live with the consequences of this choice. Tell them you expect them to be supportive, not to immerse themselves in your story as if it was their own.”
Do People Still Judge Hillary Clinton for Staying?
I was curious about whether Perel thought Hillary Clinton might still be paying a price for staying married – if she too was a victim of the ‘new shame’.
“Yes,” Perel said, “she is still judged, and way more so by women who think that if she had self-respect she would have left, as there is no way one can love or trust a man who did this to you.”
And yet, an affair does not automatically sever an emotional connection, especially one built over decades, nor does it mean a couple cannot rebound and rebuild, especially when both partners are motivated to do so.
I always tell couples who are seek therapy to heal after an affair that my responsibility is primarily to the relationship not to them as individuals. As long as I believe the relationship can recover and eventually thrive, it is my job to help them find a way to make that happen.
Similarly, it is the ‘job’ of friends and loved ones of those betrayed by affairs to avoid judging them for staying. That is the last thing they deserve and the last thing we ourselves would want were we to find ourselves in their shoes.
Yes, some cheaters are incorrigible and some relationships are doomed but when both members of the couple decide to work toward healing and mending, and certainly when we see them actually putting in the effort to do so, we should not only support them but validate their courage and resilience for tackling the immense emotional challenges they still face.
Again, please leave your thoughts below in the comment section. Thanks!
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